The Border Is Always Ready to Blow Up

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

Palestinian protesters hurls stones at Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel

The sirens screamed at 7 a.m. one morning last week in Israeli communities near the Gaza border. A few seconds later mortar shells started falling. One landed in a kindergarten playground, empty because of the early hour. All around Israel, through the day and into the night, cell phones flashed news of red alerts in the region around Gaza as shells and rockets came in. 

And into the night, Israeli Air Force jets bombed Hamas and Islamic Jihad arms stores in the coastal strip. 

Unusually, there were no reports of people killed. But bulletins pointed out, in case you weren't already thinking it, that this was the fiercest exchange of fire between Gaza and Israel since 2014. You knew the script, from 2014 and before that 2008: mortar shells or rockets, followed by air strikes, followed by mortars, and so on. Followed by war. 

The next morning, Wednesday, at 5:15, the last salvo came from Gaza. Then quiet. You woke up to the news of an unofficial ceasefire and felt knots in your shoulders that you hadn't noticed earlier unknot. 

So that day war didn't break out between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza. Then, over the weekend, a Palestinian medic was killed by Israeli fire at the weekly border protests, the men with mortars fired again from Gaza, and Israeli planes again struck armories inside the coastal enclave. The dangerous sparring, short of war but constantly risking one, continues.

The escalation spurs not just anxiety but also questions: What started the latest round? And what particular forms of stubbornness make it so difficult to defuse the explosion always waiting to happen?

The immediate spark for last week's shelling was an incident on the border. Militants from Gaza placed a bomb next to the border fence; an Israeli tank fired on nearby position of Islamic Jihad—a more radical partner-rival of Hama—and killed three fighters. A day and a half came the mortar fire, and the Israeli air raids in response.

The spark came when there was already a flammable scent in the air. The roiling mass demonstrations along the border over the last two months—and especially the death toll from Israeli army fire—have attracted world attention and condemnations of Israel. But attention fades quickly, especially in a world news-scape of Washington chaos and European disintegration. The protests haven't met the promise of ending the Israeli blockade or the much more extravagant promise that Gaza refugees would return to the pre-1948 homes of their families in what became Israel. The deaths have produced a difficult-to-measure backlash among Gazans wondering what the deaths were for. 

Advocates of armed struggle, it seems, ran out of patience with mass demonstrations quickly. Since the largest protest in mid-May, militants made several attempts to place bombs along the border. Islamic Jihad is closely tied to Iran. So is Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in Gaza, as Israeli expert Shimrit Meir points out. As she said in a weekend radio interview, the timing of the Gaza flare-up is “very suitable” for Iran, distracting Israel's attention from the Syrian conflict.

The larger context, of course, is the blockade of Gaza, maintained by Israel with the help of Egypt and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. 

And the context for the blockade is that both the Israeli government and the Hamas regime in Gaza are tied in ideological knots that block any strategy for ending the conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government sees Hamas as responsible for all violence directed at Israel from Gaza. Put differently, it treats Hamas as possessing the monopoly on the use of force in Gaza—fitting Max Weber's classic definition of a state. It leaves Hamas to deal with the problems of administering the Strip. But it also tightly controls access to the enclave. As scholar Tareq Baconi argues in his new book, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of the Palestinian Resistance, Hamas's role is a highly volatile variation on the Fatah government's role in the West Bank: a subcontractor for Israel. 

But Israel has no logical policy for dealing with the volatility. Outside of a few scratchy voices on the far right, no one in government believes Israel should reconquer Gaza. The blockade might once have been aimed at provoking an uprising to force Hamas from power, but Israel now seems to prefer Hamas rule to any alternative. 

Israel isn't the only reason that Fatah and Hamas can't settle their differences. But for Netanyahu and his political allies, the Palestinian split provides a convenient argument against negotiations on a two-state agreement: Even if Israel made a deal with Fatah, what about Gaza and Hamas? 

Here we come to the core problem: Starting with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon's decision to “disengage” from Gaza, Israeli policy has been to try to disconnect Gaza from the West Bank, and thereby reduce or eliminate pressure to give up the latter territory. 

Hamas can't possibly accept this. Its ideological claim to legitimacy is that it's a national liberation movement. In fact, from its birth at the end of the 1980s, it presented itself as the alternative to the PLO's willingness to recognize Israel and engage in diplomacy. Hamas was the party of “armed struggle” purists.  

The fatal flaw in Hamas's strategy is the opposite of Israel's: It refuses to separate Gaza and the West Bank from Israel. 

The difference between Hamas and Fatah isn't in the anti-historical insistence that Jews are colonial newcomers to the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's recent controversial speech made clear that he believes this as earnestly as any of his Hamas rivals. The difference is in the extent to which Fatah pragmatically concluded that the Jews will not somehow go away, and that the Palestinians should therefore cut a deal for independence in part of the contested homeland. 

At times, as when it released a new platform, last year, Hamas indicates that it might accept, de facto, Israel's existence within the pre-1967 borders in return for a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Then come the counter-statement, as when Hamas cofounder Mahmud al-Zahar clarified what the platform meant by saying, “If Hamas liberated 99.9 percent of the land of Palestine, it will not give up on the rest.” 

In the most optimistic interpretation, Hamas doesn't want to give up the ultimate bargaining chip of recognizing Israel without a deal in hand for a state in the West Bank and Gaza. But the organization's rigid negation of Israel, and its use of Gaza for attacks on Israel, are the very best method of keeping the right in power in Israel—thus insuring that no viable two-state deal will ever challenge Hamas to make a decision. 

With Israel willing to cede too little, and Hamas demanding too much, there's no basis for a long-term political solution to Gaza. The fact that war didn't begin last week suggests that each side is right when it claims to have established deterrence against the other: Neither wants to repeat 2014. 

But with no political agreement to defuse the border, low-level clashes are very likely to continue, with a very real chance of escalation to a war no one wants. Under the circumstances, I keep checking my phone, compulsively, for alerts from the south. 

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